Tibet is a land where Buddhist and cultural festivals happen all year round, from the first festival of Losar, or Tibetan New Year, to the Tsongkhapa Butter Lamp Festival that celebrates the founder of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism. The festivals in Tibet are very unique and especially in the summer.
Summer is actually a great time for festivals, and throughout the summer months, from June to August in the Gregorian calendar, there are more festivals than at any other time of the year put together. While there are a great many festivals to choose from, there are some that are the top festivals for Tibetans in terms of importance and spirituality.
Saga Dawa Festival
The famous Saga Dawa Festival in one of the most important festivals of the year, and is normally held on the fifteenth day of the fourth month in the Tibetan lunisolar calendar. This happens around the end of May and beginning of June in the Gregorian calendar, and it is a great time to visit.
The festival is held to celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha, and the celebrations actually last for the whole month. It is believed that to give generously, stop killing animals, and stop eating meats will accumulate a massive amount of merits for Buddhist Tibetans. Cham dances, monastic chanting, and other religious activities and ceremonies are dominant during the festival period.
As one of the most significant festivals in Tibet, there Saga Dawa can be seen all over the region, but for the best ceremonies and celebrations, you should visit Lhasa at the time of the 15th of the month, or head out to Mount Kailash, where the ceremonies are held in the shadow of Tibet’s most sacred mountain.
Tashilhunpo Thangka Display
Shigatse is the home of the Tashilhunpo monastery, the set of the Panchen Lama in Tibet, and is the locations of one of the most important Thangka festivals in Tibet. Also known as the Buddha Exhibition Festival, this is a major festival that sees one of the most sacred Thangka paintings being unveiled at the monastery.
Celebrated in Shigatse for more than 500 years, this three-day festival brings in devout Buddhist Tibetans from all across the region. The festival actually sees three different Thangka paintings being unveiled: Day 1 is for the Buddha Amitabha, to remind people to cherish their past memories; Day 2 is the Sakyamuni Buddha to remind people to pray for a life of happiness; and Day 3 is the Maitreya Buddha, known as the Future Buddha, to encourage people to have hope for the future.
The festival occurs from the 14th to 16th days of the fifth month in the Tibetan calendar, which is normally around the end of June or the beginning of July. As festivals go in Tibet, this is one of the most spectacular, and the images of the Buddha that are laid out for the people to see and pray at are outstandingly beautiful.
The Choekhor Duchen Festival
The Choekhor Duchen Festival in Tibet is one of the Four Great Seasonal Festivals of the region, the other three being Losar, Saga Dawa, and Lhabab Duchen. Celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists all over the region, it is widely believed that all actions at this time, whether positive or negative, are multiplied by millions of times. In Tibetan, the word Choekhor means “prayer wheel”, and at this time the Tibetan Buddhists carry the small hand-held prayer wheels and spin them religiously throughout their ceremonies while praying.
The festival is normally held on the 4th day of the 6th month in the Tibetan calendar, and celebrates the first sermon of Buddha to the people at Sarnath in India, not far from the famed Varanasi. This was the first time that Buddha gave instruction to the people of the Four Noble Truths: The Truth of Suffering; The Truth of the Cause of Suffering; The Truth of the End of Suffering; and The Truth of the Path that Frees Us from Suffering. In Tibet, it is a day for pilgrimage to holy locations for prayers, kora rituals, and burning of incense on the hills and mountains.
As one of the main monasteries of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, Ganden Monastery is a popular destination for both tourists and pilgrims in the summer and is located in Dagzê County, some 50 kilometers to the north of Lhasa. The festival at the Ganden Monastery normally takes place in August in the Gregorian calendar or the 15th day of the 6th month in the Tibetan calendar.
Part of the celebrations of Buddhism and the founder of the Gelug School, Je Tsongkhapa, and the festival sees the unveiling of a massive thangka painting on the huge wall outside the monastery, and people come in droves from all across Tibet to see this ancient and awe-inspiring religious icon.
The festival starts early in the morning, with people gathering from before dawn to wait for the thangka, which is carried out by the important lamas of the monastery. After it’s unveiling, the people throw Khada on the thangka and pray at its hem. Once it is rolled up again for another year, the festivities start in earnest, with merriment, dancing, drinking, singing, and time for being with family.
Shoton Yoghurt Festival
Commonly known as the Yogurt Festival, the Shoton Festival is held on the last day of the 6th month in the Tibetan calendar, usually around the middle of August. This also coincides with the end of Yarné, the 100-day summer retreat of the monks in Tibet, when the monastic body secludes itself inside the monasteries to spend 100 days in fasting and prayer, to pray for all the creatures of the earth and to avoid inadvertently killing any small creatures that would earn them demerits. Originally, once the Yarné period ended, the people would come to the monasteries to pray and give offerings of milk curds to the monks as thanks for their sacrifice.
This later changed to become yogurt as the food was introduced from India, and has become a special festival celebration where the eating of yogurt is done in huge quantities. The festivities also include the hanging of a giant thangka in some monasteries, dancing and singing, and even horse racing. Norbulingka, in Lhasa, is one of the best locations to see this festival, and there are several Tibetan operas performed there during the festivities.
Festivals in Tibet are more than just religious ceremonies. For the Tibetan people, they are a way of life and a necessary part of both religion and culture that is there to be enjoyed. Tibetans love festivals, and love to show people their festive celebrations, so there really is no better place to go in summer than Tibet for one of the most festive atmospheres on this green planet.